Three Critical Elements to Ensure Online Learning Programs Remain Fresh

Freshness.  Freshness means different things to different people.  For me, it is a break of dawn, blue sky, 67° degree bike ride, crunchy green grapes, and firm, tart blueberries.  We often do not think of ‘freshness’ in education and online learning.  But we need to.

To date, much of the focus on online learning has been about ‘access’ to the online platform, effectiveness of online learning, and whether or not online learning is strategic.  For the most part, colleges and universities have solved the access issue (by access, I am referring to the fact that the majority of schools have some programs online and as a whole, students are no longer confined to enrolling in their local zip code; if a program they desire is not offered at their local school(s), they can likely find it offered somewhere online), at least on their own campuses, and college and university administrators have embraced online learning as an important component of their strategy. To that end, a recent study reports that approximately 70 percent of chief academic officers indicate that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy, with learning outcomes being seen as the same or superior.1

Online Learning Image

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For all of us who have made this our life’s work, we need to pause for a moment, and reflect on the tremendous amount of organizational and policy work that colleges and universities have done to develop, test, and implement this modality of learning.  We need to reflect on all of the work that legislators have done to help pave the way, and we need to reflect on how the economics of education and companies have helped to push the innovation and implementation envelope for online learning (full disclosure:  I work for Pearson, the world’s leading learning company).  Most importantly, we need to reflect on the millions of students who have obtained a post-secondary education (and otherwise would not have) because of online learning.

Now that we feel good about ourselves after that retrospective moment, we have to take a moment and realize that, ‘the past is the past’ and ask ourselves, ‘where do we go from here?’

While there are a number of areas I could dissect, I have selected three that I believe will make the greatest impact on student achievement:


The Past

Previously, individual courses were put online by tech-savvy instructors to supplement their on-ground courses and programs. This rapidly evolved into colleges and universities putting full programs online that aligned to their on-ground offering, with the goal of extending reach and opening up access, primarily to advanced degrees).

The next phase was to put new programs online that aligned more closely to job market requirements.  These improvements were not insignificant, as they triggered ‘substantive change’ and required heavy lifting on the part of the university to seek additional accreditation.  At the same time, these changes required universities to think differently about how they market to and recruit online students as well as the exploration of developing deep, long-term partnerships for these services.

The Future

A significant number of colleges and universities have been online now for well over a decade, some for nearly two decades.  While online content and courses have been maintained and updated over this time, in numerous cases, the learning outcomes have not been modified to align with changing workplace needs. For example, a former high school administrator once told me how he knew he would be sitting in on a boring class later that day.  He said, “When a great new teacher, after a couple of years of teaching, laminates her lesson plan, I know I will be evaluating a less-than engaging class.”

We must protect against the practice of ‘laminating’ online lessons—all the more so when those lessons are not particularly engaging or otherwise worth preserving—courses, and programs, because the needs of education are constantly evolving.

Successful Approaches to Online Course Development

The answer, while simple, is not always implemented.  It is three-fold:

  1. Micro Changes: Annually evaluate Course Level Outcomes and Program Level Outcomes to ensure they are aligned to the terminal objectives of the program – i.e. preparing a student to be successful in the profession they will be entering or moving up in.
  1. Refresh Programs with New Concentrations and Add Entirely New Programs: A critical step here is to ensure that the selection of new programs and additions to existing programs are based on research or some form of evidence that will increase efficacy.  I always tell my team, “I am interested in what you think and feel, but tell me what you know.”  Using fact-based analysis (i.e. market assessments using multiple sources and tools) is critical to developing and delivering marketable degrees that will set students up for success.

Also, developing an entirely new delivery model like Competency-Based Education, for instance, requires systemic change – well beyond the marketability and applicability discussion.

  1. Prune the Roses: It is a well-known fact that well-pruned plants produce much more beautiful flowers and delicious fruit.  In education, we are great at adding new things and not so great at taking things away.  A solid ‘pruning’ plan must be based on well-defined criteria.  Once a program is no longer meeting the needs of the university (i.e. has shrunk to a point where it is no longer financially viable) and is not meeting the needs of the students, it is time to prune.  Metrics can easily be developed for these areas and when implemented judiciously, will bear much better results.
Online Course Development Image

Photo courtesy of Getty Images


The Past

Originally, online learning was driven by technologists, as well as tech-savvy faculty.  Many decisions were made by CTOs as online learning was such a black box for university administrators.  Without the balance of academia and technology, the result was poorly constructed content stuffed into a learning management system that had more emphasis on ‘tools’ than ‘learning’.  Design was something found in a museum of art – not in an online learning environment.  Luckily, great progress has been made in this area as the field of instructional design using technology evolved and began to thrive.

The Future

While instructional design was one of the catalysts for increasing student performance and overall degree completion, to date, we have not figured out how to truly leverage technology for learning and how to invent new instructional practices.  That is, we have done a good job at translating pedagogical and anagogical models into the online environment, but we have not developed new instructional strategies that are germane to teaching and learning, required in remote and asynchronous learning environments.

Instead, we have, for the most part, stuck with the ‘one to many’ model of instruction.  We have not developed models for technology-driven self-determined and directed learning (heutagogy), we have not been consistent and mindful in imbuing non-cognitive and behavioral elements directly into courses and programs to increase student success (i.e. elements for first generation, high-poverty, and high-minority students), and we have not fundamentally challenged the structure of the traditional degree (i.e. vs. stackable credentials with pathways to multiple degree options).

The key to future success here is simple.  It will entail looking back – i.e. using research and relying on academic scholarship to define new models of instruction apropos to a technology-driven learning environment and of looking forward – by experimenting with new models that push the boundaries of technology, teaching, and learning (with quick iterative feedback loops so as not to negatively impact learners), followed up by large scale implementation, research, and iteration.


The Past

Upon sitting down to write this article, I took the time to do some reflecting. What jumped out at me the most was how much we missed the mark when we launched early online learning programs with regard to the additional services that students would require to be successful.  We had no idea of the services a learner working in a remote and asynchronous environment would require.

Luckily, we learned very quickly, and more importantly we acted fast to develop these online services (i.e. services for coaching and mentoring, guidance on issues such as financial aid, tutoring, etc.) that would allow students who were not on campus to have access to the services they needed when they needed them.

In fact, this may actually be a great case study in disruptive innovation. We have seen many of these services developed to meet the minimum requirements for online students start to permeate on-ground operations, as they have been made available to students studying primarily on campus – this is exciting!

The Future

Pages could be written on the number of services that have been created for online learning students – far too many to discuss in this article.  With that noted, if I had to choose just one, the single service that has made the biggest impact on students’ success would be having a coach or mentor that followed the student from the first day they enroll, all the way through to graduation.  Having a mentor through one or two courses is not good enough.  Having a coach or mentor be there with the student from day one, through thick and thin, to help them find the resources they need to be successful, to encourage them to push on when they have self-doubt, to persist when others tell them they should quit, to raise a flag when they need a tutor or extra help and be able to help them find it, is a ‘killer app’.  We have made great progress here and we know this works… ‘but wait there’s more’.

Over the past decade, there have been hundreds of technology tools created to help students with their learning success – many of which have some inherent value.  The little secret is that no single application, tool, or service will give us the forced multiplier we need to move the needle in a big way on student achievement.  The truth is – it’s not one thing, it’s not everything – it’s the right thing, at the right moment in time.  Ideally, tools and services are designed together.

While this task would be gargantuan, at a minimum, tools and services MUST be mindfully woven together to provide students with an exemplary service experience.  This goes well beyond integration, APIs and data exchange.  This is about elegant usability.  It is not as difficult as one may think. Through well-defined action, research models and implementation of efficacy frameworks, we will iterate faster and provide learners with a much more impactful learning experience.

In Short

We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us, but also a great deal of heavy lifting required by all stakeholders – legislators, academics, and service providers. If we all refuse to rest on our laurels and choose to embrace the principle of ‘freshness’, the production of better programs and better-prepared students is inevitable.


1 Online Learning ConsortiumGrade Level:  Tracking Online Education in the Unites States, 2014


Follow Todd Hitchcock on Twitter at @ToddAHitchcock.

As SVP of Pearson Online Learning Services, Todd Hitchcock provides strategic and operational leadership for Pearson’s Online Program Management. Todd has been working in the educational technology field for over 20 years. He has held a number of leadership roles in the United States and Canada including Technology Officer for a large suburban school district, Director of Account Management at Pearson eCollege, and Vice President of Global Services at Florida Virtual School. Todd is an advocate for educational improvement through innovative technologies. He currently is on the Board of Directors of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), and he has served two separate terms on the Board of Directors of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).